Don Pedro picks us up in the late morning.

Martha sits in the front seat, and I sandwich myself between Mirian Manzano, a coordinator for Colta's Department of Education, and her friend from the municipal government. The bed of Don Pedro's white pick up truck is weighted down with six metal doors. We are delivering them to two Colta schools, Colluctus and Mariano Borja, for their bathroom construction sites.

Don Pedro often drives us to the communities we work in; he is an elderly indigenous man with a short stature and wrinkled forehead. Like most Ecuadorian taxi drivers, he enjoys illegally cutting across the double yellow lines of the road to pass slower cars we happen to fall behind. Two Christmas-tree-shaped deodorizers hang from his mirror. One has a snowflake pattern, mocking us in the unusually hot weather today.

He drives on back roads of dust and rock, paralleling the train tracks, to avoid traffic. The women in the backseat grumble, and shut their windows. Mirian asks me where the "furry thing" for my camera microphone is today. She laughs when I take it out, and delights in the name. It's called a "dead cat" and it's for reducing wind noises.

Upon arriving to Mariano Borja, there was but one parent volunteer, a young construction worker named Oswaldo Vala. One of the school teachers forgot to coordinate parent volunteers the day before, and with work to do in the fields, the typical group of at least four were not able to come. With only 14 teachers for about 250 students at Mariano Borja, it's been difficult for them to divert their attention to the bathroom project.

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After delivering three doors to the site, we learn there have been other setbacks for the project.

Originally, Mariano Borja was scheduled for completion by November 26th. But the volunteers underestimated the time is takes for the cement to dry over the wooden beams on the roof. It typically takes ten days, so they are now a week over schedule. Without being thoroughly dried, the roof could collapse.

But there's been significant progress. Today, the bathroom walls have a thick layer of cement covering them, smoothing the previously naked cinderblock skeleton. It's ready to be painted the classic MEDLIFE colors -- yellow and orange -- come Monday, along with the installation of the toilets. The doors are to be positioned on Wednesday, December 12th, for it's final opening to the student body.

And it can't be soon enough. A foul smell emanates from the previous bathrooms. I see three young girls skitter out of the stalls, desperate to escape the fumes. The floor is coated in a muddy veil of footsteps from use. It's only noon.

After leaning Mariano Borja's three doors against the soon-to-be bathroom, we head off to another Colta school, Culluctus.

Culluctus sits high up in the hills of the Chimborazo region at 3,585 meters. There are two school houses about a 5 minute walk from one another for nearly 200 students, ages three until 17 years of age. The newer school house, with four classrooms and two stories, previously had no bathroom at all. Each classroom houses about 26 students.

When we arrive to the bathroom site, the school grounds are deserted. The school's sub-director's mother-in-law has passed away. In indigenous tradition, the entire student body is at the cemetery paying their respects and showing support.

Two volunteers dot the hilly landscape. Maria Rosa Paguay Ortiz, a mother of a 10-year-old student at the school, and Rodrigo Yepez, older brother of two students at the school ages 9 and 10, are digging a large hole where the septic tank will be buried. The doorless bathroom structure itself is completed, awaiting the arrival of toilets.

Maria gestures to the bumpy field in front of the school house, where chickens squawk and roam. She tells us that previously, her son would have to scout for a bush or tree behind which to relieve himself, interrupting classes and without any way to clean himself.

"Bathrooms are the first necessity for a school. How can they [students] do their school work without them?" she says. Rodrigo nods in agreement. When I ask them to write down their full names in my notebook, Maria carefully prints hers in petite, floral lettering. Rodrigo gives an embarrassed shrug. He was never able to learn how to write.

The bathrooms at Culluctus are slated for completion by the end of the second week of December.

Rachel Hoffman is a MEDLIFE media intern based out of Riobamba, Ecuador

The road goes from pavement, to cobble stone, to dirt. Small tin-roofed houses reveal themselves, hidden high in the hills. They can only be found by following the trail of concrete steps coated in a fine veil of green moss from the street to their doors. 

Luis, PJ and I wind our ways into the countryside of Colta, Ecuador in a white pick up truck. We've come to check on a bathroom construction project at a rural school called Columbe Lote 1 y 2, situated in a deep valley near a snaking river.

Dr. Antonio Tayupanda, director of Columbe Lote 1 y 2 greets us in front.

He leads us to four young male volunteers energetically sloshing together cement in a wheelbarrow and hammering apart the adjoining wall of the old, insufficient bathrooms. Currently, there are five bathroom stalls for the 170 students who attend the school. A long basin of dirtied pink and while tile with brass faucets serves as a sink. They are constructing three more bathroom stalls through funding by MEDLIFE Ecuador. 

Dr. Tayupanda surveys the work proudly. This new project will serve his students, who range from ages four to 16 years old, well. He is stocky and his posture is straight. Brown eyes framed by crinkles of smile lines nestle into his round face. For a 48-year-old man, his hair is youthful. A thick black curl falls in the center of his forehead. 

After snapping photos of troweling out thick cement mixtures and aligning cinderblock bathroom walls, the director insists on feeding us. He whisks us away to a small classroom where we squeeze into wooden chairs better suited for five-year-olds. Dr. Tayupanda leans in the doorway, pressing us to finish our plates like a worried mother. He is bundled in a white corduroy coat with a faux-sheepskin collar, though the weather is warm. Small children in thick, red wool sweaters danced about his feet, excited by visitors and the day's construction. He playfully pats them all on the head. 

Our next stop is a bare classroom. A thick red curtain serves as a separating wall for the long room. It hangs limply and unevenly on a wire strung across the ceiling. Dr. Tayupanda speaks of the dire need for more schoolhouses, gesturing out of a dirtied window lined with small potted plants. 

Outside was a circle of painted wooden stumps that served as the student's seats. They conduct class here when they run out of room indoors. The strong winds turn the pages of Quichua instruction books, and teachers, of which there are 12 in the school, have to compete with the loud moo's of cows grazing in the distance. The lack of space is a thorn in his side as principal.

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This is one of only three stark classrooms they have at the school. But smoke hangs in the air. Why?

The director answers our questioning with a gesture toward the back of the classroom. There lies a narrow room the size of a closet. Three young women in traditional dress cluster around a fire, heating a large metal pot of potatoes. They peel potatoes with small knives, chatter, and lean toward the one open window for fresh air. They were making lunch for the students, and the principal is proud that no one goes hungry here.  

Dr. Tayupanda excitedly leads us to the back of the school's property. It appears that lunch was not only provided for each student, for the cost of one U.S. dollar per month, but it was home-grown.  

We slip through a narrow, muddy passage way between a school house and a small set of three cages formerly used to raise guinea pigs. Here lays his pet project to improve the school -- a cinderblock foundation of what will be a new, larger pen for guinea pig farming.

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Though not what one assumes of school lunch, guinea pig is a common dietary supplement in the rural communities of Ecuador. According to the Telegraph, these small rodents can have “more protein and less cholesterol than beef, pork, lamb or chicken.” They're also quite easy to raise, needing a few servings of commonly grown vegetables a day, such as dark greens, radishes and celery. 

Around the corner from the pen are steep hills of fertile, black earth. Dr. Tayupanda points to our feet where a springy lettuce plant grows. 

“In three months, it's ready to be harvested,” he says, beaming. 

The hills surrounding the school are draped with rectangular plots of vegetables. Blackberry vines curl along the thin wooden fence surrounding the farm plots. Crops like potatoes, onions, cilantro, turnips, and peppers are grown by the parents of the children on these hills. They volunteer once a week, and the harvest feeds the children and teachers lunch throughout the year. 

“How long have you worked here?” I then ask. 

“Twenty three years,” he replies without a blink. “And you, you're what? Twenty-two?” he asks smiling.

“Yes, twenty-two, how did you know?”

He let out a deep laugh. “Twenty three years working [with young people] and I know a twenty-two-year-old.”

He thanks us for visiting, shaking our hands with both of his. 

I really hope that you return and come see us,” he says sincerely, as if inviting us back for a family dinner. 

Rachel Hoffman is a MEDLIFE media intern based in Riobamba, Ecuador

November 20, 2012 5:14 pm

On Building a Bathroom

Written by Rachel Hoffman

Luis and I took a short bus ride from Riobamba. The rhythmic rocking of the behemoths they call buses here was still enough to induce both of us into a brief slumber. After thirty minutes and a brisk walk through a few uneven cobblestone streets, we reached a tall iron gate that sat guarding a small school. On the side of the school facing the street it read “Escuela Mariana Borja” in black, capital letters.

We had arrived. To look at a bathroom. 

colta construction toolsIt wasn't yet a bathroom per se -- it was a patch of grass and a pile of rubble from which we were going to begin building one. Sanitation projects for MEDLIFE Ecuador are some of the most important community projects for providing sustained health care. This school sits in the Cajabamba community in Colta, a primarily indigenous and rural population. Rural and lower-class regions like these have the worst access to proper sanitation facilities in the country. Without hygienic separation from fecal matter, it can often lead to infections and diarrhea that is life-threatening, especially for younger children. 

Escuela Mariana Borja is overflowing with children between first and sixth grade. Once you're inside, dark orange and ochre walls form semi-outdoor hallways. Children duck and giggle behind pillars. A cement rectangle forms a small soccer field in the center of the compound, where young boys scrabble over a well-worn ball. 

Colta-school-childrenThe need for the bathroom project was obvious. The current situation involves three stalls for boys and three for girls. There are over 200 students. When we spoke with the principal and some school children, they told us that often the smaller children get pushed out of the long lines for the bathroom during recesses by the older students. They hardly get to wash their hands, let alone relieve themselves. 

But the school day must go on. Children in a fourth grade science class were excitedly slapping bright red paint onto papier mâché volcanoes in makeshift streams of lava. First graders were practicing their letters in small marble notebooks in an impressive concentrated silence. 

On November 7th, the bathroom construction site was a pile of cinderblocks, a few scattered indigenous women volunteers from the community, and the skeleton of an old metal swing-set. By November 16th, a frame of the new stalls was erected in gray cinderblock, and a volunteer group was busily installing piping and supports on the roof. The project is slated for completion by November 26th.

Rachel Hoffman is a MEDLIFE media intern based in Riobamba, Ecuador

June 25, 2012 4:51 pm

Hygiene Project Ecuador: 21 de Enero

Written by Administrator

MEDLIFE works with local authorities and community members to aid those most in need.  Hygiene Projects encompass the construction of latrines, waste disposal systems, handwashing stations, and other structures.  We also implement proper hygiene education and provide check-ups and medical treatment for the community during our Mobile Clinics.  Our aim is to provide a clean and safe learning environment for students and teachers in rural and low-income communities so that they may continue their education with dignity.

In January of 2011, MEDLIFE completed another Hygiene Project in the jungle community of 21 de Enero of Tena, Ecuador. Read below to learn more about the project: 

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21 de Enero is a community belonging to the district of Archidona, a 30-minute drive in the sticky jungle heat from the larger city of Tena, Ecuador. The remote community has only one school, which serves 56 children, ages 5 to 12. After local government workers signaled that the school was in great need of improved sanitation, MEDLIFE staff members drove out to see how they could help.

 

They encountered poor and insufficient hygiene facilities due to the fact that 56 students and four teachers had to share a single toilet. Children would often tire of waiting and just relieve themselves outside while teachers reported occasionally making themselves sick by waiting until they got home to use the bathroom. The tiny stall was also a dangerous potential source of parasites and bacteria.

 

Calling on the help of students from UNE, Berkeley, FIU, Miami, Cornell, Claremont, Syracuse, and Johns Hopkins, MEDLIFE staff and volunteers completed a larger and more sanitary bathroom for the community over the span of 10 days. The improved facility has two separate stalls and a wash station to help combat the spread of infectious disease. Says school director Elsa Astudillo, “I feel proud to have these new bathrooms.”

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For more info on the MEDLIFE Fund and how you can contribute, please follow the links below:

Learn more about the MEDLIFE Fund

Donate to the MEDLIFE Fund


June 5, 2012 2:02 pm

Hygiene Project: Palmira

Written by Administrator

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Students and teachers at 27 de Febrero School in the community of Palmira in Riobamba, Ecuador are now benefitting from new bathrooms, classrooms and a better education due to a MEDLIFE Hygiene Project that was completed in May of 2011. Prior to the construction of new bathrooms, students only had access to an uncovered area with two toilets located in between trees near the school. Students would have to go accompanied by a teacher and have them hold a blanket in front of them for privacy.

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During a span of 20 days, MEDLIFE student volunteers from all over the U.S. helped to construct the new hygience service areas along with members of the Palmira community. Their Mobile Clinic during March of 2011 helped provide the financing that made this project possible. 

Because of the help that MEDLIFE provided to improve health and hygiene for these children, local authorities were made aware of the school's needs in these areas. A few months later, they aided in the construction of more bathrooms and classrooms and in the hiring of more and better qualified teachers. 

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